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Jax Daily Record Thursday, Dec. 5, 201312:00 PM EST

Justices hear arguments about card rooms at tracks

by: Dara Kam

The Florida Supreme Court heard arguments this week about whether a law allowing two greyhound tracks to open satellite card rooms without any live racing is unconstitutional.

A three-judge panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal found that the law was so narrowly written that it was an unconstitutional "special" act because it applied to only two facilities — the Palm Beach Kennel Club and the Daytona Beach Kennel Club in Volusia County. 

But Barry Richard, representing the Palm Beach Kennel Club, argued that the appellate court wrongly interpreted the language of the law, which went into effect in 2010. The law was part of a sweeping gambling bill approved by the Legislature in 2009 that authorized a deal with the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

The law would allow jai alai permit holders to convert unused permits into greyhound permits if they meet certain conditions. It also would allow greyhound permit holders to open card rooms at satellite facilities without live racing, again if certain conditions are met. That combination could have allowed the Palm Beach and Daytona Beach tracks to open satellite card rooms.

Under the law, a jai alai permit could be converted in a county in which the state has issued only two pari-mutuel permits and only if the jai alai permit had not previously been converted from another class of permit and jai alai games had not been performed there for at least 10 years.

Richard argued Tuesday that the appeals court wrongly interpreted "only" to mean "precisely, no more and no less," instead of "not more than" two permits. That interpretation excluded counties in which one permit was issued and "wiped out" five other counties that the law could have applied to at some point.

"The interpretation given by the District Court of Appeal has no rational basis," Richard said.

And the court wrongly interpreted "has issued" to mean permits that were ever issued in the county. The law could apply to other permit holders in the future if permits were merged or revoked, Richard argued.

But lawyer David Romanik, who represents DeBary Real Estate Holdings Inc., argued the law was specifically designed to benefit just the two facilities where it would apply. The DeBary group, which filed the lawsuit, owns a quarter-horse permit in Volusia County but has never opened a facility. The Daytona Beach Kennel Club planned to open a poker room in West Volusia with its converted permit.

Romanik argued that the law is unconstitutional because it effectively created a closed class of permit-holders who would be eligible for the converted permits and thus the more lucrative card rooms. To be constitutional, all members of the class must be able to qualify, he said.

But several of the justices seemed skeptical about Romanik's objections, especially because there are only 11 total jai alai permits in the state and because the Legislature has been more active in limiting competition in the pari-mutuel industry than in other businesses.

"It would make sense that you would not want those particular business operations to face further competition but you may need it in other parts of the state. I'm a little puzzled by your statement that it has to operate with every jai alai identically. It would seem to me that with something that you have such few in number that that would create almost an unworkable situation," Justice R. Fred Lewis said.

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